Big Fish

Laura Clifford 
Big Fish
Robin Clifford 
'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'
                                                                                                    Maxwell Scott, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

William Bloom (Billy Crudup, "Almost Famous") became estranged from his wildly popular father Ed (Albert Finney, "Erin Brockovich") after one too many of his important achievements were overwhelmed by his dad's frequently-told tall tales.  After many years living in Paris with his French wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard, "Taxi 3"), William learns from his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange, "Titus"), that his dad is dying and it is time for William to try and make his peace with the "Big Fish."

Tim Burton rebounds, if not spectacularly, with his homey, comedic Southern gothic rumination on the power of myth-making.  Burton's direction of John August's ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle") adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel is episodic and tonally uneven in its acting, but he socks over an emotional payoff with the film's conclusion.

William Bloom's life and heritage have been embroidered from the day he was born, which Ed immortalized with the tale of his encounter of a legendary, female catfish.  'The only way to catch an uncatchable woman is to offer her a wedding ring,' he says, recounting how he had used his as a lure, then let the big fish go so as not to incur the wrath of his beloved.  Will and his pregnant wife's presence at Ed's bedside presents the opportunity for Ed to go over his life story once more and Burton flashes back and forth weaving his tale like the storytelling of Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride" with more present day action and less linearity.

As a child, Ed dared a visit to a one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter, "The Heart of Me") whose glass eye was said to foretell one's own death.  After his buddies fates are shown, Ed's is hidden from us, but his reaction lets us know that this vision will empower him for years to come.  He describes a radical growth spurt that kept him in traction (in a machine that looks like a product of "Edward Scissorhands's" Inventor Vincent Price's lab, one of the few truly Burtonesque visual touchstones) for years.  Then, as a young man (Ewan McGregor, "Moulin Rouge"), he takes on a real, cave-dwelling monster that's been eating everything in town.  But that real giant, Karl (Matthew McGrory, "House of 1000 Corpses"), is onto Ed's psychology, so Ed decides to get the nuisance out of town by accompanying him himself.  Ashton, North Carolina throws a parade to escort the duo out and the witch appears to offer Ed one last piece of advice - that the way to become the biggest fish is never to be caught.

Ed takes a detour that leads him into the timeless town of Spectre, whose denizens's shoes all dangle from a power line while they happily cavort barefoot on streets of grass.  After observing famous poet Norther Winslow's (Steve Buscemi, "Mr. Deeds") inability to finish a poem and being told by Mildred (Missi Pyle, "Bringing Down the House") that he's quite a catch, Ed decides to hightail it out of there, but not before promising young Jenny (Hailey Anne Nelson) that he'll return someday.  Ed and Karl then fall upon a circus where Karl is particularly welcomed, towering over ringleader/owner Amos's (Danny DeVito, "Death to Smoochy") Colossus by several feet.  There, Ed catches a glimpse of the girl he believes he is destined to marry (Alison Lohman, "Matchstick Men," as the young Sandra), and he agrees to work for Amos free, receiving one tidbit of information about her each month.  A magical courtship later, Ed has a stint in the Korean War which he escapes with the help of conjoined Korean singing twins Ping (Ada Tai, "Rush Hour") and Jing (Arlene Tai, "Rush Hour") before becoming a traveling salesman who once again finds Spectre and Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter again), now fallen upon hard times.

The wonderful Albert Finney is beautifully cast as the unrepentant charmer.  Even though Finney spends most of the film bed-ridden, his Ed is a life force, obviously still madly in love with his wife (he and the woefully underutilized Lange have one marvelous scene in a bathtub).  When Ed lures his foreign daughter-in-law in with an elaborate version of a hoary old joke, Finney even caught me unawares with the punchline.  Yet while Finney is brilliantly paired up physically with McGregor, McGregor is a major disappointment portraying the younger version of the character.  McGregor is all shiny surface optimism, lacking the layers Finney gives the character.  Lohman is more successful standing in for Lange, capturing the older actress's essence.  What an amazing year for the actress, believably playing a thirteen year old in "Matchstick Men" and a woman of marriageable age here.  Billy Crudup, a talented actor, is miscast, neither looking like the progeny of Ed and Sandra, nor ever seeming comfortable in the role of the unforgiving son.  McGrory, Buscemi (who makes an amusing reappearance in Ed's tales), DeVito, and Bonham Carter are all pluses in the supporting arena. Robert Guillaume (TV's "Benson") is solid as the long time family doctor, although it is highly questionable that a black man would have been allowed to work as a white woman's obstetrician in the 1930's South.

Production designer Dennis Gassner ("Road to Perdition") does not deliver a Burtonesque landscape, with Amos's traveling circus a particularly missed opportunity.  Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot ("Planet of the Apes")'s palette meanders from brilliantly bright (a field of daffodils) to limply pallid (Ed's first meeting with Karl).  Original Music by Danny Elfman ("Hulk") is comfortably expected.

Burton does a good job continuing to touch upon the film's themes throughout the film (the woman/fish/Eve metaphor, the tradition of storytelling and its cultural commonalities), but Ed's past is delivered in fits and starts and the love story, which is central, is largely abandoned in the present, leaving a gaping hole.  Burton seems unsure of himself here and the film lacks his usual sharp directorial vision - it would have been interesting to see what the Coen brothers would have done with this material.  Still, when "Big Fish" comes to its thoroughly expected conclusion, it is quite satisfying nonetheless.


Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), a reporter for the Associated Press in Paris, takes an urgent phone call from his mother (Jessica Lange) all the way from Ashton, Alabama. She tells him that his tall-tale telling father, Edward (Albert Finney), is dying from cancer. Will and his pretty, pregnant wife, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), jump on a plane and the proverbial prodigal son returns home to confront and console the man he has clashed with all of his life in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.”

Will, a straightforward seeker of truth, has never fallen to the charms of the outrageous yarns that his father has always told, captivating everyone he meets. For all of his life the younger Bloom has heard the stories about giants and werewolves, conjoined Korean Lounge singers, a witch with a prophetic glass eye, a magical town and, of course, a very big fish.

This fish story turns to Edward in youthful form, a young man who has the world by the tail and can’t wait to leave his hometown of Ashton. First, though, he volunteers to do battle with a monster ravaging the countryside, devouring cattle. The “beast,” it turns out, is really a misunderstood giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory) that Edward cleans up and the two hit the road for adventures unknown.

The pair part ways when Edward decides to take the path less traveled and ends up in a dark and scary forest where he is chased by angry bees and swarmed by giant jumping spiders. He falls upon the small, picturesque town of Spectre where the streets are made of well-mowed grass and nobody wears shoes. Edward is intoxicated by the town and its people, including poet Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi), who eventually turns bank robber then Wall Street entrepreneur. As taken as he is to Spectre it is still a small pond and Edward is a big fish with even bigger ambitions and he moves on.

After teaming up with Karl again, they attend the circus run by ringmaster Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito) where Edward spots Sandra (Alison Lohman), the young woman he knows will be his wife and life long companion. But, before he can meet her, she is spirited away and he indentures himself to Amos on the circus owner’s promise to divulge a piece of information about Sandra every month. Three long years later, with Edward mastering all the arts and tasks of the big top, he gets all of the vital pieces and finds his true love. And, he is not remotely discouraged to find out she is engaged to his old high school rival, Don Price (David Denman). Edward finally woos prettt Sandra with a little display of 10000 daffodils, her favorite flower.

These are some of the stories that Edward has always woven through his middle years and beyond and Will has never believed any of them. As father and son spend time together, Will begins to see that, in his dad’s wild fabrications, there is an underlying truth in the tales. “Big Fish” is both a realization of Edward’s stories and the reconciliation and understanding that is gained between an ailing father and his son.

I liked, but didn't love, "Big Fish." Parts of it were excellent but the main problem was Ewan McGregor as Edward Bloom the younger. I don't think it's the actor's fault but his Edward is more an ever smiling, glad handing caricature than genuine character. McGregor gives an effervescent perf, not much different from his in “Down with Love,” and is likable as heck but not very more than a cartoonish sketch of a character. Though younger Edward is the film’s prominent character, he is overshadowed by the supporting actors and the often-quirky stories.

Albert Finney and Jessica Lange, when together as the mature Blooms, have the best chemistry in “Big Fish,” but their scenes are far too infrequent. There are some very nice casting choices with the younger versions of the characters morphing smoothly into their older counterparts. McGregor is much like the Albert Finney of “Tom Jones (1963)” fame. Alison Lohman is a dead ringer to Lange as younger Sandra. Helena Bonham Carter does triple duty as the Witch and the younger and senior Jenny, the unrequited love of the ever-faithful-to-Sandra Edward. Steve Buscemi and Danny Devito perform their expanded cameo roles well enough.

"Big Fish" is mid-level Tim Burton. It's not as good as, say, "Beetlejuice," Edward Scissorhands" or "Ed Wood," but way better than "Mars Attacks" and "Planet of the Apes." The story, adapted from the Daniel Wallace novel by scripter John August, is a collection of fantasy tales that readily display the adventures of young Edward. They are a series of vignettes as the ever-positive Bloom moves from one fantastical anecdotal interlude to the next. As such, the story doesn’t flow as much as it jumps between Edward’s adventures and the reconciliation between Blooms, father and son.

“Big Wish” has many of the quirky production elements that are familiar from Burton’s previous films. There are the streets of small town America lined with perky, pastel houses set in idyllic locales, like in “Edward Scissorhands,” and the circus setting revisited from “Big Top Peewee.” Tim Burton’s vision of his fantasy world is well handled by veteran production designer and Oscar winner Dennis Gassner. Costume, too, by Colleen Atwood, lends to the surreal world that revolves around young Bloom. Philippe Rousselot’s masterful lensing is a thing of beauty.

Tim Burton continues his mostly successful directorial career with another sound entry. “Big Fish” is not one of his best but, still, an interesting story of a father and son finding each other at long last. I give it a B.

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